Maybe the best thing that ever happened to Kristan "Stan" Connor was losing her high-stress public relations job. Now there's plenty of time to spend in her sleepy new Connecticut town working on her dream: baking healthy, organic pet treats! Before long the neighborhood dogs are escaping their yards to show up at Stan's doorstep, begging for the kinds of special homemade treats her Maine coon cat Nutty loves so much. And Stan's pet-loving neighbors are thrilled with the new organic options available to their furry family members. But not everyone loves Stan and her newfangled organic ways. . . It seems Carole Morganwick, the town vet, is from the old school of pet care. But when Stan swallows her pride and brings a very unwilling Nutty in for a checkup, she not only finds Carole dead under a pile of kibble. . .but also that she's in the dog house as the prime suspect! Finding the real killer and clearing her name will require some seriously surreptitious sniffing around. . .and hopefully, curiosity won't kill this innocent cat! Includes Gourmet Pet Food Recipes! "Like the goodies Stan makes for her Maine coon kitty Nutty, Kneading To Die is a treat! Liz Mugavero weaves animal knowledge into a fun and frisky whodunit, with plenty of lively pet action." --Clea Simon, author of Cats Can't Shoot
Release date: May 1, 2013
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 353
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Kneading to Die
The harsh words, shouted from next door, broke the stillness of the small-town Saturday and startled Stan Connor enough that she dropped her last moving box. The one full of things she didn’t trust the movers or Richard to handle. Miraculously, Richard leaped over and saved it, right before it almost hit the pavement in her new driveway.
“And I’ll make sure everyone in town knows it.” The shouting continued, creeping closer.
Stan and Richard turned to see a woman with long white hair storm down the driveway to their left, jabbing a finger at someone they couldn’t see.
“Oh, try it,” another voice yelled back. “Everyone will see who’s really the hack. You’re not the star you think you are around here!”
The white-haired woman said something else Stan couldn’t hear and stormed over to a green SUV. She got in, revved the engine and roared down the road. A thirtyish woman, with a golden retriever by her side, appeared. She watched the truck disappear. When she realized she had onlookers she turned abruptly, called the dog and vanished into the house.
Stan glanced over at Richard, who watched the scene with interest.
“So much for peace, love and harmony in a small town,” Richard said with a smirk. “You sure you don’t want to rethink the condo in the city?”
Stan shook her head. “Not a chance. See? You thought I’d be bored, but now I have front-row seats for the neighborhood brawls. They were too proper for that in West Hartford.” Stan closed the car door. “I wonder what that was about.”
Richard precariously balanced his last two boxes, hefting them higher into his arms. “Who knows? Maybe she didn’t milk the cow right.”
“I don’t see cows in the yard. But there’s a dairy farm two houses down.”
“Yeah, I can smell it.”
“Oh, hush.” Stan held the heavy oak front door, with the beveled glass sidelights, open for him, forgetting all about the argument as she stepped into her new home. Victorian. Bright. Happy. And all hers.
“Can you put those on the kitchen table? Carefully? My Vitamix is in that box.”
He grunted at her as he moved inside, trying not to trip with his cargo. Stan stood on her new porch and surveyed her surroundings. Her yard. Her driveway. Her town green—didn’t it belong to everyone, after all?—directly across from her house, its grass lush and inviting in the summer sun. Her neighbors. Cows, arguments and all.
She loved Frog Ledge already.
She followed Richard into her new tangerine-colored kitchen, wincing as he dropped the box on the table. She heard a clatter from within the heavy cardboard and sighed.
“Have you seen Nutty?” Her Maine coon cat didn’t like upheaval and hadn’t been thrilled with the move. He’d been hiding since she’d let him out of his carrier.
Richard opened the box and began pulling out kitchen paraphernalia. “The Vitamix looks fine,” he said, pulling out the beloved machine she used for everything from soup to smoothies to frozen drinks. “And no, I haven’t seen the cat.”
“I hope he didn’t sneak out in the last-box frenzy.” Stan hip-checked Richard out of the way and finished unpacking the box herself. “You can unpack dishes. Or better yet, how about basement stuff?” She turned, waiting for his response, and caught him glancing at his watch.
“What? Oh. Sure. I have a little more time. I told Carl I’d meet him for drinks tonight. You’re welcome to join us.”
“For drinks. With Carl. Gee, that sounds great, but I’ll have to pass. Got a little bit of work to do.” Work that my boyfriend should volunteer to help with.
“Oh. Well, next time,” Richard said, completely missing her sarcasm. “Unless you find really cool things to do around here. In Frog Ledge.” His tone suggested she would be more likely to find a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end of it during her morning run.
“Is it necessary to be so derogatory? This town is beautiful. This house is beautiful.” Stan swept an arm around her colorful, empty kitchen, already imagining what treasures she could find to make it her own. “Just because it isn’t the city doesn’t mean you have to shoot it down.”
He was raining on her parade, and she didn’t have many parades these days. But today she’d woken up excited about the move—so excited, in fact, that she’d chosen a theme song for the day. Something she hadn’t done since “The Elimination.” And even though it was the cheesy eighties song “I’m So Excited,” heck, it was still a theme song.
She was getting back on track.
“Come on, Stan. You’re angry about your position being eliminated. I get it.” Richard took the empty box out of her hand, collapsed it for recycling. “I wish you’d thought more about it before up and moving out here. I mean, who even comes to this side of Connecticut? Except to go to the casinos. And who lives in a town called Frog Ledge? We could’ve figured something else out.”
Nutty chose that moment to slink around the corner. Stan ran her hand down his back to the tip of his tail as he proceeded cautiously by her to investigate the unpacking. And probably look for his homemade treats, which she was running low on.
“Who’s ‘we’? Like you pointed out, I’m the one who lost my job.” She yanked open a drawer and threw utensils in it. “You’re still Richard Ruse, vice president, fancy-pants sales guy. Your life didn’t change much, aside from having to drive a half hour to my house instead often minutes.”
Richard still worked at Warner Insurance, the financial giant where Stan had ruled the media spotlight. Until two months ago. Losing her beloved public relations job—and corresponding expense account—gave her the right to be a little cranky, didn’t it? She was trying to make the best of having her professional life and most of her social life yanked away. Not dwell on the past, and all that. And moving had seemed the most appropriate way to do that.
“Of course this changes things for me,” Richard said patiently. “We were a great power couple in the company.”
Her face must have said it all. He had the decency to flush. “You know what I mean. Look, all I’m saying, Stan, is you didn’t have to move to the other side of nowhere. And financially, staying in the condo would’ve been better. Smarter.”
She turned, eyes narrowed. “Don’t play that card with me. We both know I’m in better financial shape unemployed than most people are working. I paid for this house in cash. I’m good with investments, to put it mildly. And I’m getting severance for almost two years. Money is not the driver here. Changing my scenery was. Now, can we not argue? I’d like to unpack and enjoy my new house. And I wish you would enjoy it with me.” She hefted the next box onto the counter and began pulling out dishes, piling them in cabinets.
“I am enjoying it with you,” he said, his voice soothing. “Want me to hang some of your pictures in here? I brought my tools.” He picked one up from the pile the movers had leaned against the wall. It was a depiction of a Paris café, only the backs of the patrons visible as they faced the city street.
“Sure. I think there.” She pointed above her two-seater bistro table.
Richard picked up his tool bag and pulled out a level, hammer and nails. He held the picture against the wall. “Tell me where.”
“A little higher. Over to the left.” Stan stood back, cocked her head to determine if the picture was straight. “That’s good.”
She watched as he marked the wall and banged in the nails. Handsome, no doubt about it, with wavy brown hair and big blue eyes. Tall too. She could always wear whatever size heels she wanted when they went out. And such a smooth talker. What else would you expect from a salesman?
She turned abruptly and went back to the dishes.
“Listen,” he said, intent on his task, “I talked to Mick Harvey yesterday, and he thinks he can talk to the New York folks about finding you something in a different division. You could probably still be based in Hartford. It wouldn’t be exactly like your old job, but—”
“Enough.” Stan slammed the cabinet shut so hard, the contents inside rattled. “I don’t want to talk about Warner anymore. I don’t want to work at Warner anymore. And I don’t want you talking to Warner people about me. End of story, Richard.”
He finished with the picture and stepped back to admire his work, unfazed by her reaction. “You won’t be happy without a job. We both know that. May as well see what they have to offer.”
“I wouldn’t be happy going back there, either. They didn’t want me anymore. They made that clear. Frankly, I don’t need them. I certainly don’t need to beg anyone for a job, thank you very much. When I want one, I’ll find one with no problem.” She hoped.
“Come on, Stan. What did you think would happen? McAllister was in a bad spot.” Richard moved up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, rubbing at the tension there. Waiting for her to see his point. People usually saw Richard’s point. That was how he pulled in six figures in commissions last year. “He had to place blame somewhere. You know the game. Jeez, you’re a top player.”
“Are you defending McAllister?” Stan heard her voice rising, but she couldn’t rein it back in. She moved out of his reach. “The president of the company gets caught screwing the competitor president’s wife, and it’s my fault the media picked up the story? My fault the statement didn’t sound better? You really have been drinking the Kool-Aid. There was nothing I could have done to spin that. Nothing. Not to mention, by the time I got called, it was too late. And by the way,” she said, kicking an empty box across the room, sending Nutty running, “no one really gives a damn what that pompous ass is doing. They were just curious about how he scored a decent-looking mistress.”
Richard’s blue eyes turned icy, as if she’d insulted him personally. He opened his mouth to respond, but the doorbell rang, shutting them both up.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“No idea.” She turned her back on him and headed for the front door. He trailed behind, his footsteps on the hardwood floors sending echoes throughout the empty house.
Stan pulled open the front door. Her mouth dropped in surprise. An unlikely trio stood on her porch. Two women and a man. The older of the women held hands with the man. At first glance they were an odd match. She had short, flame-colored hair teased up off her head and sprayed into place. Despite the heat of the July day, she wore a long-sleeved pink-and-orange paisley dress, which made her generous frame appear even larger. Platform flip-flops had her towering over her partner. Glittery silver eye shadow caked over each eye reminded Stan of her nightclubbing, dancing-until-dawn days. By contrast, her companion, a fiftyish or sixtyish man with a beard and kind eyes, was skinny enough that his jeans were held up by checkered suspenders. He wore a straw hat and looked like he’d just left the farm. Which, around here, he probably had.
The younger woman could be a fashion model. Or a basketball player, given her height. Stan had to look up to see her. Eyes covered by Jackie O sunglasses, long black hair weaved into hundreds of braids. She wore skinny capri jeans, a tank top and purple flip-flops. With one hand, she held on to two leashes, one attached to a boxer and the other to a poodle. In the other she carried a huge basket wrapped in pink cellophane.
The group broke into a cheerful chorus of “Welcome to the neighborhood!” The poodle woofed. The boxer wagged his tail.
“Oh, my goodness! How nice! I’m Stan Connor.” Stan stepped out on the porch and held out her hand.
The man reached over and shook first. His grip was hearty and strong. “Ray Mackey. This is my wife, Char,” he said. “We run Alpaca Haven, the bed-and-breakfast–slash–alpaca farm down the way a bit. And that’s Izzy,” he said, pulling the model/basketball player up next to him. “Isabella Sweet, of the infamous sweetshop, also down the way, but thataway.” He pointed in the other direction.
“A pleasure,” Izzy said, a slight British accent lilting her voice. She lifted one hand in a wave. A ring in the shape of a gigantic purple daisy almost hit Ray in the face. Brilliant red nails with glittered tips stood out against her caramel-colored skin.
“Honey, did you say ‘Stan’?” Char interrupted, knocking her husband out of the way to clasp Stan’s hand.
“I did,” she said, smiling. “It’s short for—”
“I think it’s delightful!” Char exclaimed. “I love unique names. I don’t even want to know what it stands for.”
That surprised Stan. People were always curious when they heard her name. Most agreed it was the most unique nickname for Kristan they’d ever heard. Char, apparently, wasn’t most people. She leaned forward and bussed Stan’s cheek, noticing Richard lurking in the hall when she did so.
“And who’s this?”
“That’s Richard.” Stan motioned to him to come out. She shot him a sideways glance that said, Have some manners.
Richard stepped forward; his smile was more of a grimace, his handshake formal and proper. “Richard Ruse. Nice to meet you.”
“Would you like to come in? For, um, tea?” Stan asked her guests, trying to remember if she’d unpacked her teapot yet.
“Oh, honey, we saw the movers leave just a while ago. You’re in no shape to entertain,” Char said, but she craned her neck to see around Richard into the house until Ray poked her arm. “We just wanted to drop off something small to welcome y’all to the neighborhood. Izzy?” She motioned to her. Izzy stepped forward and presented Stan with the basket.
“Some treats Char and I put together,” she said. “Enjoy.”
Stan accepted the generous basket, which looked like it had enough gourmet coffee and goodies to tide her over for the rest of the year. How exciting, to have the owner of the sweetshop on her porch! She’d driven by the shop twice now, but she hadn’t yet made it inside. Simply seeing it had been a relief. She’d never tell Richard, but she had been worried about the seeming lack of good coffee in the area. Izzy’s shop would take care of that.
“Izzy Sweet’s Sweets! I’m dying to get there. And these dogs are treasures. Can they have a treat?” She crouched down to pet them. The boxer nudged his face into Stan’s hand. The poodle hung back.
“You can give it a whirl,” Izzy said. “Elvira is very choosy.” She nodded to the poodle. “But Baxter will eat anything.” The boxer waved his tail in agreement.
“Hang on,” Stan said. She went into the kitchen, deposited her basket on the table and took two treats out of Nutty’s fish-shaped treat jar. She saw him watching her from around the corner. Was it her imagination, or was he chastising her with those brilliant green eyes?
“Come on, Nutty. We have to be nice to the neighbors,” she said. “Don’t want to get off on the wrong foot. I’m baking more soon. Okay?”
Nutty turned and stalked away, his fluffy tail standing tall like a proud plume. Or like his own version of a middle finger. Stan went back to the crowd on her porch. Richard wasn’t entertaining. He stood there like he’d landed on another planet and didn’t anticipate knowing the language. Stan crouched again in front of the dogs and held the treats. Baxter wolfed his down. Elvira came forward and sniffed delicately.
“I’m sorry,” Izzy began; then her eyes widened in amazement as the dog plucked the treat daintily from Stan’s hand and devoured it. “Well, that’s a switch,” she said. “What kind of treat was that?”
“Homemade,” Stan said proudly. “I bake them for my cat. They’re peanut butter and bran.”
“Really!” Izzy reached down and scratched Elvira’s ears. “I may have to hire you to bake some for me. She’s a hard dog to feed sometimes.”
“I’d be happy to,” Stan said. “I have a bunch of recipes just begging to be made. As soon as I put the house in order, that is. For now, I’ll be making the basics. Cheddar cheese treats are on the list next, once I get unpacked. If you want to stop by in a day or two, I’ll save you some.”
“We just might,” Izzy said. Elvira woofed her agreement.
“Well, we’ll leave you to it,” Ray said, his grip firmly on Char’s arm as she edged closer to the door to take another look inside. “Call us if you need anything. I’m the handyman around town, too. I can fix anything. And help you move things.”
“Yes, honey, that’s right. My Ray can do anything. And I can bring over a bottle of wine and we can have a few sips and watch him work.” She winked at Stan and tugged Ray’s hand. “We’ll leave you to get unpacked. Come over soon and meet the alpacas!”
Stan grinned. She already liked her new neighbors. “Thank you all. I’ll see you soon!”
“Come down to the shop when you’re settled,” Izzy said. “We’ll have coffee and I’ll tell you all the gossip. Let’s go, dogs.” She tugged at the leashes. Baxter trotted after her. Elvira continued to stare at Stan. Waiting for another treat, apparently.
“Wait.” Stan ran back inside, dumped the remainder of the treats into a bag and prayed Nutty would still speak to her. She returned to the door and brandished the bag. “Take these for her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Nutty eats too much, anyway.”
“Say thanks, baby doll,” Izzy urged Elvira. Stan fed the dog one more treat, then handed the bag over. Elvira trotted away, only after she saw the goods change hands.
Stan watched them walk down the driveway, then closed her front door. “Well, wasn’t that sweet,” she said.
“They seemed a little . . . odd.”
“Odd, how? They were nice. And did you see that basket? I need to find my coffeemaker. Did you see what box it ended up in?”
Richard followed her back to the kitchen. “You don’t think this scene will wear on your last nerve?”
“Any more than you are right now?” She smiled sweetly to take the sting out of her words. “I don’t. I think it will be fun. I never had my neighbors as friends before.”
“They’ll be all up in your business in no time. You’ll hate it. And then you’ll beg me to let you move into my place. And, of course, I’ll let you.” He grinned.
“Gee, thanks. So, do you want to go to the co-op? I’m dying to check it out. I’ll get some fresh veggies and make us a late lunch. Or do you want to hang more pictures?”
Richard hesitated. “I should probably get going. I told Carl I’d meet him around five, and I need to shower.” He glanced down at his spotless khakis and golf shirt.
Stan pasted an agreeable smile on her face. “Sure. Can you at least leave your level so I can hang some things?”
“I can come back and do it, babe. I’m only in Chicago until Wednesday.”
“Oh, that’s right. You’re leaving tomorrow.” For the big sales conference she, too, had attended every year that she worked at Warner.
“I am.” He watched her, his face a mixture of pity and smugness that said, I told you so. “See, you will miss it. Do you want me to call Mick?”
“No,” she snapped. “Enjoy your trip. Leave the tools. I’m perfectly capable of hanging pictures.” Theme song: Sinatra. “My Way.” Or maybe Billy Joel’s “My Life”? Maybe she’d get crazy and not even use the level.
He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay. I’m sorry. I hate leaving right now.”
Sure you do. “Thanks for helping. And it’s fine. It’ll give me a chance to put the house in order.” She thought of Ray’s offer. “Maybe I can get some of my new neighbors to help.”
The quiet could either kill her or save her. Stan wasn’t sure which. Not that she could admit that to Richard.
After he left, she’d gone to the town co-op and selected her favorite organic vegetables—mushrooms, zucchini, red peppers, onions, carrots and tomatoes—and made roasted veggies and goat cheese for dinner. Then she opened the bottle of wine she’d picked up so she and Richard could celebrate her new home, poured a glass and decided to take advantage of her new back deck. She opened the French doors to the sunroom, which overlooked her fenced-in backyard, surrounded by full, lush trees and the faint outline of hills in the distance. She stood at the screen door and breathed it all in.
How could Richard not see the beauty of this place? The view was amazing. The air smelled cleaner than any air she’d smelled in a long time. Well, aside from the manure. And the sense of town camaraderie was apparent in just one afternoon.
Not to mention her new house. What a treasure! It made her smile from the outside in. The happy mint green color brightened up the whole street, which alternated between farmhouses, historical buildings, town offices and some older, gently worn homes. It even outshone the new construction, in her opinion. The dusty rose trim, the inviting front porch accented with latticework, the dollhouse feel. The pointed roof on the south side. The two-car garage set off the driveway, which she had big plans for. She wasn’t sure yet what the plans would be, but she’d figure it out.
The house had been a chance finding while accompanying her best friend on a rescue dog delivery. Nikki ran a transport group called Pets’ Last Chance, saving dogs from high-kill shelters down south and placing them with families all over the East Coast.
On that particular day Nikki had dragged her along for the ride after swearing she wouldn’t let Stan sit around moping about her job for one more day. As Stan stared morosely out the van window, thinking about all the ways her life had turned to crap, the house suddenly appeared, bold and bright and happy. Fate. Once the dog, a beagle named Seamus, had been delivered to his new home, the Realtor had taken them through. Peering around every corner into a new room had given her that delicious feeling of anticipation she hadn’t experienced in a long time.
And the rest of the house hadn’t disappointed, from the ceiling-to-floor bookshelves in the study to the narrow hallways and shining woodwork, to the large sunroom that begged for a person to curl up with a cup of coffee and a. . .
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